About a month ago a friend emailed me excited as a kid at Christmas because he’d found out that Pho was soon to be opening in Brighton (next to Jamie’s Italian). I resolved that as soon as it opened I was going to get myself down there to give it a go. So the day after the official opening and on the day of the election, Sven and I hurriedly cast our vote before going to try out the newest addition to the eateries of the South Laines. Pho already has three sites in London at Clerkenwell, Great Titchfield Street and Westfield Shopping centre, but the Brighton restaurant is their first forray into the world outside of London.
The owner, Stephen Wall, gives his reason for choosing Brighton: “Opening Pho in Brighton was always a dream for us and it’s great to make it a reality. In the last few years we’ve spent a lot of time in Brighton & Hove and feel that our fresh, healthy food and competitive pricing will appeal to the local community. The dynamism of the city is one which we think will work well with our restaurant’s contemporary atmosphere and overall offering.”
Flattery will get you everywhere Steve! But he’s got a point: we do like our healthy food down here and being essentially a town of people who have chosen to “work to live” rather than “live to work”, we are often quite cautious with our wallets. Pho might be right up our street.
Pho was started five years ago by husband and wife team Stephen and Juliette Wall after they travelled to Vietnam and were inspired by the culture and the cuisine. About ten years ago (bloody hell, I’m getting old), I travelled around Vietnam as part of a 5 month trip around Asia. Like Stephen and Jules, my resounding memory of the place is the amazing food that you could get for tuppence on any street corner. Little shacks with two or three plastic tables outside would bring you steaming bowls of noodles, served with bunches of herbs, piles of chillies and ice-cold beer. So I was excited to see whether Pho would do justice to the Vietnamese food of my memories, and I can tell you upfront… they didn’t disappoint.
The interior of the restaurant is a contemporary industrial space, but hints of South East Asia like the bamboo canopies and bare lightbulbs give the restaurant an authentic feel. There is a selection of seating possibilities: booths in the back, high tables in the area surrounding the open kitchen, and normal tables in the front (as well as an outdoor section for when the weather will allow). I don’t know about you, but I like a good open kitchen. There is nowhere to hide, the chefs are forced to prepare dishes from scratch, using fresh ingredients whilst working cleanly. An open kitchen immediately instills you as a diner with confidence in the food.
At your table, there are a number of sauces in bottles that very much resemble the street shack versions you get in Vietnam: Hoi Sin sauce, chilli sauce, another pot of hot chilli sauce and fish sauce (which rocks my little world). When the menu was brought over by our waiter, Carl, he was happy and eager to be as much use to us as possible. Every question we asked was met by a thorough (but not condescending) answer. This guy knew the menu backwards and when prompted offered his opinion on what we might like. Considering the restaurant had been open less than a week when we visited, I thought that was pretty impressive (and actually this might prove to be quite important as Brighton is not exactly teaming with Vietnamese restaurants and a lot of diners might be a little confused and clueless at first). Recommendations were offered and taken.
But first things first. Sven has a somewhat strange (to me at least) obsession with prawn crackers. To me, they are the things that come free with your Chinese takeaway, but Sven actually orders them… and he orders them everytime. So, we had to have our prawn crackers. To be fair, they turned out to worth getting just for the sweet chilli sauce, which was much much better than the run of the mill stuff you usually get. The prawn crackers were a bit greasy, but they always are.
When both Carl and the owner Steve recommended the pork meatballs (Nem Nuong, £4.50), I just had to try them. When they were brought over, the server explained that the idea was to tear off a bit of lettuce and wrap a meatball and mint leaf in the lettuce before dipping in the nuoc cham sauce (fyi – nuoc cham sauce is a chilli, garlic and fish sauce dipping sauce which I could seriously drink straight… so good). Thank God that this was explained to me because I would not have thought to do it, and jeezy crizzy it was an absolute revelation. Mixing the fried meatballs with the fresh mint and lettuce was a taste sensation. I wolfed down the whole lot even though there were about 8 meatballs and this was just the starter. On reflection, this was probably an error as I really struggled to finish my main. However, it was beyond my powers to stop. There is no physical way I could have left a meatball on the plate.
My starter arrived a minute before Sven’s and the poor boy was having horrible food envy, until his prawn and papaya salad (Goi Du Du, £5.95) was laid before him that is. It looked deliciously vibrant. Again, the waiter recommended that he pour the nuoc cham sauce over the top of the salad as it would bring all the flavours alive. Sven duly obliged and was blown away by the fresh and zingy flavours of the salad. I had a little try and it had a really good smack of chilli and coriander which I loved. Plus Sven got some more prawn crackers so he was made up.
For my main course I ordered the hot and spicy beef brisket soup (Bun Bo Hue, £7.75) because Carl and Steve both commented that the spicy soups had been really popular during their soft opening. When it arrived the sheer size of the soup took me aback (this is the moment I realised I should not have eaten all of my meatballs). The portions are generous to a fault. The soup is accompanied by a little plate of herbs, chillies and lime. Feeling brave I chucked in the majority of the herbs and a fistful of the chopped chilli slices into the soup without even trying it first. I then took my first deep slurp. Sure it was hot, but manageable (despite an initial coughing fit triggered by a mouthful of chilli). What was more noticeable however was the depth of flavour. The stocks take up to 12 hours to prepare and you can really taste it. Using traditional recipes that utilise a mixture of ingredients both from local producers and imported Vietnamese goods, the soups are rich and intense and they really feel very authentic. I have to admit that I only got through about two-thirds of my soup, partly down to the earlier scoffing of the meatballs and partly because of the ridiculous size of it. Before I initially dug in to my bowl of Pho I was offered a really sexy paper bib to wear and actually I was very glad of it because, due to the slurpy nature of noodle soup, it was a pretty messy dish to eat. Sven and I agreed that Pho was not necessarily the right place for a first date.
Sven had wok fried flat rice noodles with rump beef (Pho Xao Thit Bo, £7.95) for his main course. The meat was sumptuously tender and he really liked the crunch of the peanuts with the noodles. The chilli and lemongrass flavours were delicious too.
I was really too full to have a dessert, but I figured I could manage a bowl of mango sorbet from La Maison des Sorbets (£3.50). It was fruity and refreshing after such a filling meal.
Sven wanted to have one of the weasel coffees (made from coffee beans that have passed through a weasel!?) but they were having teething problems with the grind of the coffee, so he settled for a Vietnamese short coffee with condensed milk (Ca Phe Den, £1.75). He absolutely loved it. Look at his little face!
Me? I was just delighted to be wearing my sexy bib!
Final thought: if you’re thinking of going to Wagamamas, go here instead. It’s fresh, vibrant, it’s delicious, it’s just… so much better. What’s more, Pho is healthy and (considering the portions) really reasonably priced. I think Pho is going to do very well in Brighton. Shrewdly placed next to Jamie’s Italian it will undoubtedly benefit from the overflow traffic of people who are just too hungry to wait. And I think those people will have a cheaper and arguably more interesting meal as a result and no doubt leave feeling very pleased with themselves. I really recommend it.
12 Black Lion Street
01273 202 403